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Asp-e-Laila: Queen of Mares

Updated: Dec 29, 2022

The filly who led Lahore and Kabul to war


Have you heard of city streets being scourged and hosed down for a horse to pass through them? I shall tell you one such legend today, which took place in Lahore during the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

What later became barracks for the British for Her Majesty’s Armed Forces were formerly the stables of the Shahi Qilla, the Royal Fort of Lahore. It is said that a thousand of the finest horses could be housed there any day.

Ranjit Singh’s love for horses

However, it wasn’t always enough for Ranjit Singh, for his love for horses ran deep. His horses were also housed in the Hazoori Bagh and even the Badshahi Masjid when the stables were fully occupied!

Ranjit Singh’s stables were home to Arabian thoroughbreds, including the legendary horses like Gauharbar and Safaid Pari, both of which were known to have “the speed of the wind”. Another interesting fact about his stables is that each horse was worth at least Rs. 20,000. Those in the streets of Lahore casually joked about how the Maharajah’s horses alone were worth the entire city.

Upon conquering the city, Ranjit Singh is also known to have issued a famous royal decree.

Any man of honour is to give top priority to his horses, his work and his women, in that order.

The tale of the mare Asp-e-Laila is one such story, which is a witness to the Maharajah’s immense passion for horses. The legendary Persian thoroughbred mare belonged to the Barakzai tribal chiefs. The filly was famed for her beauty, speed and intelligence alike. Accounts suggest that it was sometime in the early 1820s that word of Asp-e-Laila reached Ranjit Singh’s court. He became obsessed with her and vowed to bring her to his stables, regardless of what it cost him. The Maharaja dispatched his officers to look for the filly as soon as he heard of her. An account by one of his officers said she was in Peshawar, whilst another spoke of the Barakzai’s had found out the Maharajah’s intentions and had moved her to Kabul. In 1822, the Maharajah sent Minister Fakir Azizuddin to Peshawar to collect tribute from the Barakzai’s. Although some very fine horses were among the gifts, Asp-e-Laila was not among them. Upon being questioned, the chieftain said that he did not own the horse. This angered the Maharaja, and a team of officers was designated to track down the mare. The negotiations continued for years, until 1828 when the Maharaja’s patience had worn down. Lahore and Kabul found themselves at war. Sardar Budh Singh Sandhawalia, the commander of Maharaja’s force, perished along with hundreds of his soldiers during battle. Two French generals were sent with reinforcements to assist Budh Singh’s force, which changed the course of battle. As a result, the Barakzai's surrendered. Upon surrendering, the French generals were told that Asp-e-Laila was not in Kabul. The Barakzai chieftain's brother was held hostage, upon which the French were told that the filly is dead. Upon hearing this, Ranjit Singh flew into a rage. He was also told that the mare may be in Peshawar. The Maharaja wasted no time and dispatched another expedition under Sardar Kharak Singh to fight for the horse. As fate would have it, the Barakzai chieftain was put to death by his own tribesmen for going to war for a horse, before Kharak Singh could reach Peshawar, and Sultan Muhammad Barakzai, his brother, fled to safety. Two years down the line, Sultan Muhammad was appointed as the Governor of Peshawar. The demand for Asp-e-Laila was put on his table again, to which he refused. House arrest and an execution sentence were meted out to Sultan Muhammad after which he agreed to hand over the horse. It is said that he “cried like a child.” as his beloved was taken away in a special carriage guarded by over 500 soldiers.

Asp-e-Laila reached Lahore Fort from the westwards Akbari Gate. The streets leading to the gate were ordered to be cleaned and scrubbed for two days before the mare arrived, for the Maharaja did not wish for a single speck of dust to enter the horse’s nostrils. After Asp-e-Laila reached Lahore, and Ranjit Singh finally set eyes on her, “It has been worth the trouble.” he commented.

The jet-black filly is perhaps the only one to have the honour of wearing the famous Koh-i-Noor diamond around her neck.

Besides being the horse for Ranjit Singh on all special occasions, she was the last horse the Maharaja ever rode. Even in illness, he asked to be put in a saddle. Asp-e-Laila cost Ranjit Singh 60 lakh rupees and 12,000 soldiers, which by today’s estimates would be around $60,000 and an entire infantry division. It took him longer to acquire Asp-e-Laila than to conquer Lahore; for that, her name shall remain etched in history forever.

 

This blog has been written by Komal Salman.

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